Sleepy Sonoma - it’s routinely in the shadow of its muscular elder brother, Napa. And while the Napa Valley is the de facto region for Cabernet Sauvignon, the vast Sonoma Valley offers a greater diversity of grape varieties, specific growing regions for those wines, and friendly price points.
Sonoma is home to 15 separate American Viticulture Areas (AVA), the most well-known being Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Knights Valley in the north for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dry Creek Valley which is Zinfandel territory. Along the way there are over 60,000 planted acres producing 50 varieties being poured at 400 tasting rooms. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the dominant wines in Sonoma with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in the number two positions.
Sonoma County is notoriously large, in spite of the fact that just 7% of all wines made in California come from here, and any visit requires some planning to fully appreciate the region. From mega-large to boutique, to ultra premium to celebrity-owned wineries, Sonoma is known for its unencumbered pace within a beautiful rustic backdrop. The Sonoma County Airport, also known as the Charles Schultz Airport (named after the Peanuts comic strip author and long time Sonoma resident) is the only regional airport with direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is the calling card for Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley is the spot where the acidity of these red wines shows best; something Napa cannot offer. “If those high end Napa guys want to try their hand making Pinot Noir they come to Sonoma first,” says Mark McWilliams, owner of Arista Winery in the Russian River.
Sonoma Food & Wine
Vineyard grower Phil Coturri, who farms 700 acres of organic and biodynamic vineyards in both Sonoma and Napa equates winemaking to cooking: “Winemakers are chefs, though we cook just once a year.” His point is well taken and Russian River Valley’s Arista Winery is one example of the new attitude for Sonoma who exemplify a harmonious blending of wine and food. Their land was originally hop farmed (for beer production) but now produces 5,000 cases of lovely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We make sit down wines not cocktail wines,” McWilliams tells me. They and others like them are indicative of new trends in Sonoma; a literal farm to table approach with the realization that wine should not be tasted in a vacuum. Offering a $75 five-course food and wine pairing their beautifully prepared foods properly showcase their wines. That sounds common enough, but Arista is aiming for a closed loop system of food and wine. For example, they have 38 different varieties of tomatoes on the property, farm fresh eggs, herbs and spices growing just feet away from the tasting room; a dirt-to-plate mentality. You might find Alaskan halibut with pickled onions and local mushrooms, to lamb confit topped with their farm eggs.
In the southern portion of Sonoma, Carneros, the cool winds coming off San Pablo Bay buffet vineyards creating
greater acidity and structure. One of the best and most amazing experiences is Ram’s Gate Winery sitting near the
water’s edge. Ram’s Gate produces 13,000 cases of wine, none of which you’ll
find outside of their architecturally beautiful winery. The design of the
winery makes you feel like you're visiting a friend's weekend house in wine
country, albeit created by an interior designer who worked with the Mandarin
Oriental Hotel group. You can choose from a variety of areas in which to taste
the wines: the pavilion with a view of the pond, on either side of the
double-sided outdoor fireplace, inside at the bar, in the library or even at
the chef's table and there are various wine and food pairing options. The 30
foot ceilings, exposed beams, weathered wooden walls made of reclaimed
snow-fencing from Wyoming, and massive floor-to-ceiling glass walls open to
sweeping vineyard views of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Assistant winemaker
Jesse Fox worked as a chef for six years before making wine at one of Napa’s
premier Cabernet houses, Harlen Estate, prior to coming to Ram’s Gate. He ages
his Chardonnays on the lees and the bulk of the fruit is estate.
|The entrance to Ram's Gate Winery|
But Sonoma is also becoming known for its cheese trail including McClelland Dairy, and Weirauch Farm. The region is returning to its agricultural roots with dairies and creameries offering tours, tastings, and artisanal cheeses made from cow, sheep and goat, all with unique flavors to rival cheeses from Italy, France and Switzerland. The cheese trail is spread throughout both Sonoma and Marin counties with over 30 dairies and creameries thus far. This makes for a lot of ground to cover but the allure of wine and cheese trails will take you from Petaluma to Point Reyes at the coast giving you a broader understanding of the geography of Sonoma not to mention the diversity of these artisanal cheeses. (See my full length post here: SONOMA CHEESE TRAIL.) Click here for Part 2 of this story.
Take a VIDEO TOUR I shot of Sonoma!